For those of us who’ve lived in Portland for more than a year or two, the urban landscape has already changed quite a lot. We’ve watched Southeast Division Street grow from an overlooked neighborhood drag dotted with diners and mini marts into the Pacific Northwest’s most scrutinized dining street. We can tell stories about when artists still lived in the Alberta Arts District, sharing space with working class families who’d been there since the days when we still built Liberty Ships.
Some of us even remember when the South Waterfront was just a barren stretch of brownfield, wedged between two traffic-thronged bridges. It’s been a busy decade for Stumptown, no doubt.
So when I say that the next five years are going to transform the streets and buildings of central Portland more dramatically than at any time in living memory, you’re forgiven for thinking it’s hyperbole.
A look through the real estate stories in local newspapers, business journals and the Portland Monthly makes this much clear: there’s a construction boom going on in the city, and for the first time in a generation, it’s producing buildings that are truly, enthusiastically, sometimes ill-advisedly new. As Randy Gragg points out in that article series above, the boom is not unprecedented in size; the number of building permits issued in the city in 2013 is still well below the peak of the hot-burning early 2000s. But what’s being permitted this time is different. Instead of more two-story homes with lawns, punctuated by the occasional condo, now we seem to be making almost nothing but urban buildings. City buildings. Buildings for people who walk fast and ride the streetcar and take taxis, and stay up late and order takeout.
This shift is the result of two inter-playing forces, both of which have been around for years, but have only recently combined in a way that’s visible at street level.
The first is Portland’s shifting demographics. The city has been getting younger, more transient and more educated for years — at least since the turn of the millennium — and this means tremendous growth in the demand for rentals, especially rentals near downtown or the commercial strips of the east side. It’s a marked shift from Portland’s residential identity through most of the 20th century, when it was defined by families looking to buy their slice of the American Dream, front porch and backyard included. This long history, upset suddenly by an influx of young new residents, is the main reason Portland has one of the lowest rental vacancy rates in the nation — occasionally the lowest, with a market that’s tighter at times even than San Francisco’s or New York’s.
The other force at play is the region’s long allegiance to close-knit urbanism and smart growth. Greater Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary dates back to 1973, and policies encouraging infill development and increased density have been popping up ever since, in the form of tax breaks, zoning adjustments and simplified permitting processes. The current rush to build Accessory Dwelling Units, for example, is a direct result of the city’s decision to waive system development fees; a decision in 2002 to suspend parking minimums for apartment buildings in transit-dense areas has spurred more than a dozen projects into life.
Independently, either of these trends would give the city a gradual push towards taller buildings, clustered around transit and pedestrian-friendly streets, that embrace the sidewalk rather than shying away from it. Taken together, though, their impact is more rapid, and more dramatic. Take Northeast Multnomah Street, for example: the half mile or so that this broad arterial spends in the Lloyd District has been defined for decades by parking lots, parking structures and curbside parking. The Northeast 7th stop on the city’s MAX light rail, a block south on Northeast Holladay Street, was one of the city’s least utilized and most perplexing (why did it even exist, I wondered, when you could chuck a rock in either direction and hit the next stop?).
But then came the Milano, a tidy little bike-themed, bike-oriented block of small apartments at the western edge of the District, which did surprisingly well in the struggling economy. Then came the transformation of Northeast Multnomah itself, with one of the city’s first separated cycletracks. Now everything seems to be happening at once. The Hassalo on Eighth, which covers nearly a full city block between Multnomah and Holladay, will be the largest apartment development in the history of Oregon when it opens a few months from now, and promises to create something no one could have imagined for the area until recently: a street life. Less than a year after that, the Lloyd Mall just up the street is billed to cut the ribbon on a dramatic redesign, replacing a pedestrian-repelling parking structure with a series of storefronts designed expressly with foot traffic in mind (though the mall itself will retain much of its existing parking).
For a lot of Portland residents, it’s challenging to imagine window shopping along a street that’s known mostly as a blur of asphalt and office towers seen through a car window. But then, a lot of unimaginable things have happened in the past decade or two. A stretch of North Mississippi Avenue that today includes a brewery, a live music venue, dozens of thronged restaurants and bars, and a store selling decorative taxidermy, was largely barred-up storefronts through the early 2000s. The Pearl District—Portland’s best-known repository of martini bars and trend-forward baby shops—was crumbling warehouses through the mid-‘90s. Neighborhoods in Portland, as in many cities, have a habit of changing very little for a long time, then a lot all of the sudden.
What’s different this time is that the change is happening in so many places simultaneously. Less than a mile south of the Lloyd District, on the eastern approach to the Burnside Bridge, is another example that’s perhaps even more dramatic. Most of the businesses that have opened along Lower Burnside in the past decade took over existing buildings — Doug Fir and the Jupiter Hotel, which have anchored the district since 2004, famously occupy a renovated 1960s motel. But what’s slated for the bit up against the river — a slice of land known to developers as the Burnside Bridgehead — is one eye-popping piece of new construction after another.
If everything that’s been proposed for the Bridgehead area gets built, the eastern approach to the Burnside will be unrecognizable in five years. The S-curve of Northeast Couch Street that funnels traffic onto it will be flanked by a pair of canted blocks, six stories high, joined midway up by a small skybridge, and clad in a pattern of abstract botanical illustrations derived from wallpaper. Its working name is The Fair-Haired Dumbbell. A block up from there will be a 60-unit live/work building that looks for all the world like a pile of glass-sided shipping containers. And a block to the west, Skylab Architecture (the studio responsible for the Paul-Bunyan-goes-to-Vegas vibe in the Doug Fir Lounge, and some of the city’s most striking modern residences) will plant a 21-story shard of a building next to the bridge deck, with a base that swells into a jagged 3-story pedestal fronting onto the skate park tucked under the bridge.
All three buildings will provide some combination of living, working and commercial space and, together with two more developments down the street, would add over 750 apartments to the 10-block area, more than tripling its resident population — to say nothing of office workers, window-shoppers and nighttime carousers.
Each of these buildings could stand alone as an interesting departure from the vision of Portland as a city of Craftsman bungalows and great big trees. Taken together though ‚ along with the new construction slated for (or underway in) the South Waterfront, along North Williams and SE Division, around the NE/SE 28th corridor, and the residential skyscrapers emerging downtown and in the northern reaches of the Pearl District — this is a reweaving of the city’s urban fabric. Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard was once an anomaly on the city’s east side: a commercial street with enough vibrance and walkability to be a destination. As a dozen neighborhood centers reach similar density, it’s poised to become the norm.
The negative response to all this development — and there is plenty — tends to hinge around the high rents many new complexes will demand, and the inevitable accusations of gentrification. The New York Times was writing about Portland’s struggles with displacement and unaffordability several years before the current boom, and complaints about new construction “driving up the cost of housing” are common. Much of the new construction, to be fair, is aimed squarely at the well-heeled renter, and it’s likely that the ground-floor retail in those buildings is likely to be more boutique than affordable.
But it’s also true that if Portland doesn’t build more housing soon, rents will go up even faster, as supply fails to keep pace with demand. San Francisco offers a cautionary tale, with regulations and a permitting system that kept new construction to a minimum, causing the value of existing housing to skyrocket. One eye-opening critique of the Bay Area’s current housing crisis points out that Seattle, with only 75% of SF’s population, added roughly twice as much housing per year over past two decades, by embracing the type of infill development that Portland is experiencing now. Even when much of this construction is luxury (though plenty of it is not), adding new stock to the market relieves pressure that can drive “normal” apartments into the luxury category.
This is not to say developers are absolved from the need to build for a variety of income levels. Large projects often come with a city mandate that builders construct a certain number of below-market units too, and scandals have erupted when those units failed to materialize. Critics are right to call these out as shameful examples of cynicism and greed, and insist the builders be held accountable. This is different, though, from shouting down new construction itself as a cause of rising living costs — no matter how avant garde the individual buildings appear.
The fact is, Portland’s had this wave of construction coming for some time.
It’s a city built on a dense grid of streets, with abundant sidewalks and closely spaced commercial districts. Its public transit system far outstrips that of any US city of comparable size. The growing preference for localism prompts many residents to look down the street for their needs, rather down the highway. These are the underpinnings of a dynamic, multi-modal city, and they’re ideal for supporting the kind of density depicted in the latest round of renderings.
If all those buildings come to be, we’re looking at a city far removed from the Portland of 10 years ago, or even last year. But it’s also a nearly inevitable one, and far better than many alternatives. It’s unlikely that the activists responsible for stopping the Mt Hood Freeway, or installing Pioneer Courthouse Square, or fighting for the Urban Growth Boundary could have predicted anything resembling the Fair-Haired Dumbbell, and it’s uncertain whether they’d even approve. But they did work hard to make a city that’s able to grow in a humane way, and in that sense, we’re getting exactly the city they deserve.
Photo (cc) via Flickr user Jeremy Piehler